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The Hindu Kush Himalaya could lead the way towards nature-based solutions

Pema Gyamtsho

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World Environment Day 2021 saw the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030), a global mission to restore degraded terrestrial, aquatic, and marine areas, and help prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems. (Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)

Nature is beautifully complex. Natural systems intertwine and depend on one another, with millions of species living and thriving together even as they compete against each other. Competition for survival has been an intrinsic part of life on earth since its emergence on this planet. Competition and interdependency are, in fact, at the core of evolution. Over the course of billions of years, organisms and ecosystems have changed at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels, enriching diversity. Today, the earth is estimated to be home to approximately 7.8 million species, with a vast majority of them still awaiting scientific description.

While human beings have not been around for very long in the larger context of the geologic time scale, we have caused major and rapid environmental changes in the time that we have been here. As we thrived, we became dominant forces exerting major influence on and unsettling once-balanced ecosystems. There is evidence to indicate that 75 to 95 percent of terrestrial ecosystems have been reshaped by humans, and much of this in the recent past.

The mountain ecosystems of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), once considered inaccessible and inhospitable, have not been spared these changes. Our mountain communities, whose cultures evolved in harmony and synchronicity with the environment around them, face the difficult task of adapting to a changing climate and changing ecosystems. As this massive challenge awaits, we must look at the cultures and practices that have historically defined life in the mountains and learn how nature-based solutions can help us capitalize on the immense capacity for healing and finding balance that exists in nature. This can help us build back better in solidarity with the natural world and natural systems. As this year’s strongly realized theme of International Day for Biological Diversity states, “we’re part of the solution #ForNature”.

 

Changing landscapes

In the HKH landscape, rangeland ecosystems cover about 2 million square kilometres or some 60 percent of the total geographical area. The mountains of the HKH are also ‘water towers’, with their snow-capped mountains, glaciers and permafrost sustaining the flow of fresh water that feeds 10 major rivers. Diverse herding and farming communities have traditionally depended on HKH ecosystems for their subsistence, and the waters that flow downstream have supported major civilizations as well as present-day cities and some of the most densely populated river valleys.

Around 3600 years ago, the establishment of an agropastoral economy enabled human beings to settle in the Tibetan plateau. Agriculture and farming changed the landscape of the HKH. As human populations increased and farming became more widespread, forested land and lowland areas too were taken up for subsistence agriculture. Today, the HKH region – home to four out of 34 global biodiversity hotspots – faces habitat changes that have major implications for its wildlife and biodiversity.

 

Natural capital

Due to its wide elevational gradient and varied topography, the HKH is blessed with diverse micro-climatic zones. From the dry, arid areas of the western Himalaya to the eastern Himalaya, which is one of the world’s wettest zones, the region is a veritable treasure trove of biodiversity. Covering 4.5 million square kilometres, the HKH is rich in terrestrial biodiversity, especially of the sub-alpine and alpine kind. It is home to over 35,000 species of plants, 200 species of mammals, and 10,000 species of birds. The region is known for its endemic species and the rich diversity of its non-timber forests products and medicinal and aromatic plants.

Biodiversity is an important natural capital for the region, where the economies of member countries are closely linked. Major sectors of the region’s economy – hydropower, tourism, medicinal and aromatic plants, mountain agrobiodiversity, and livestock-based economy – are directly dependent on its rich biodiversity, which has its foundations in healthy ecosystems.

In a nutshell, the HKH provides ecosystem services to nearly two billion people, more than any other mountain system in the world, and we must do all we can to protect the health of the ecosystems that make this possible.

 

Biodiversity under threat

Global biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented scale. Over a million species are said to be under the threat of extinction. Statistically, the HKH is said to host a higher rate of global threats (overexploitation, land use change, pollution, invasive species, and climate change, among others) than other parts of the world. Resource exploitation is rampant in the region, and forests, wetlands, and rangelands are being altered or degraded at unprecedented scales. Pollution is showing visible impacts, and invasive species are being reported from the remotest corners of the region. Shifts in vegetation due to climate change are being reported, and narrow-range species are being threatened as the vital links between species and ecosystems are disrupted.

Like the rest of the world, the HKH is on the brink of a major catastrophe and we must act now to mitigate the threats. To be able to make better decisions for the protection of our biodiversity, we must continue our work to strengthen science to move beyond anecdotal studies and create as full a picture as possible of habitat fragmentation, species loss, the impacts of climate change, and its implications for the region.

 

Building resilience through nature-based solutions

As the HKH transcends the borders of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, the need for a common vision amongst the countries and their people is necessary. Our ecosystems are contiguous and our traditional practices have transcended borders. Yak herding, agropastoral systems, and agroforestry practices have historically relied on exchange between communities, and indigenous breeds and crop varieties developed in these diverse ecological circumstances and production systems.

It is important for us to consider past realities in our vision for the future. The HKH could perhaps even be regarded as a common pool natural capital for our member countries to collaborate on. We must come together and agree upon a strong, sustainable greening and rewilding strategy to reverse the losses we have encountered in the past decades. The solutions are with nature and the people who sustain our rich heritage through traditional systems and practices. We need innovation that is respectful of nature and the exchange of good practices grounded in natural systems and rhythms.

As envisaged by the UN General Assembly Resolution 75/271, we need conservation through regional cooperation at the transboundary level. As members of an intergovernmental and regional organization, we at ICIMOD are committed to working towards the global sustainable development goals and the supporting commitments made by our eight HKH countries under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The efforts we are making through the HKH Call to Action focus specifically on enhancing ecosystem resilience for a sustained flow of services by halting biodiversity loss and land degradation. A momentous development came in the form of having our Call to Action recognized and solidified during the HKH Ministerial Mountain Summit and declaration. Steadily and unitedly, we are paving a path towards greater transboundary cooperation on biodiversity conservation and presenting a unified HKH voice on the global stage.

Protecting our future is our responsibility and we simply cannot afford not to act now. Today, as we pause to reflect on the rich variety of life on earth, let us all reaffirm our commitment to protect the vast resource that is the HKH. The region we are trying to protect is part of the solution. And so are we.

Wishing you all a happy International Biodiversity Day!

 

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